The start of a school year is a time for new beginnings, cultivating connections, navigating various systems, understanding policies and procedures, digesting new curricula, and applying new learning we encounter in the ever changing educational landscape we live in. Sometimes we become so consumed with taking in so much newness and information that the experience itself can cause barriers to pathways of innovation and creation.
There are moments when we become so overwhelmed with the feeling of consumption that our brains are working in overtime to process multiple ideas simultaneously. So what could be getting in the way of our ability to shift from consumption to creation? According to Barbara Oakley, PhD and Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, authors of Learning How To Learn: A Guide For Kids and Teens, there are times our brains need to lose concentration to think more clearly and problem solve. During those moments when we are less focused on learning, our ability to apply something new increases.
Neuroscientists have discovered that there are two different modes our brains require that are important to the learning process: focus mode and diffuse mode.
Oakley and Dejnowski define the modes in their book:
Focus Mode: “When you’re in focus mode, it means that you’re paying attention. For example, you might be trying to figure out a math problem. Or you might be looking at or listening to your teacher… when you’re focusing you’re putting specific parts of the brain to work.”
Diffuse Mode: “Diffuse mode is when your mind is relaxed and free. You’re thinking about nothing in particular. You’re in diffuse mode when you’re daydreaming or doodling just for fun. If your teacher tells you to concentrate, you may have slipped into diffuse mode.”
When we are in the process of learning something new, we focus and ignite those parts of the brain that initiate the learning process. In diffuse mode, there is an invisible potential to the endless possibilities that lead to making connections that forge your ability to imagine and create.
How can we create conditions for educators and students to shift between focus and diffuse modes to ensure they can apply learning in meaningful ways?
Preserve time to reflect on roadblocks to creation with colleagues/peers.
According to Adam Grant, author of Think Again, it is important to possess the qualities of confident humility. Acknowledge your struggles, know what you don’t know, and share your learning and questions with others. Provide opportunities to have protected, intentional collaborative time to discuss potential roadblocks to internalizing and applying new learning. Talk with colleagues or peers about what is causing your brain congestion. Thinking out loud with partners who may value different perspectives can provide new insights that help connect the dots to previous and new learning. Additionally, you may choose to use this time to shift from learner to teacher. Try teaching your new learning to your colleagues/peers in an effort to make your learning stick.
2. Engage in activities that support fluid movement between focus and diffuse modes.
Be mindful about stepping away from routines that put you into a constant state of consuming new information. Engaging in some mindless activities can help you weave together new learning that can ultimately lead to pathways of creation. Turning up the volume on your music as you drive, taking a walk, drawing, painting, and/or watching your favorite movie or television show can breathe life into new ideas. There is another important activity to embrace: getting a good night’s sleep! This is when your brain gets an upgrade and you unintentionally rehearse what you’ve learned. When you are learning something new and have revisited the concepts several times, sleep on it! Then, attempt pulling those new ideas out of your mind the next day. It gets easier to recall and apply that new information each time.
3. Pause to observe the details in the world around you.
Actively observing and noticing the details in the world around you can help you make connections that spark new ideas. Watching people, nature, and interactions can help you build neural structures for learning and application. You may consider putting yourself into a completely different environment than your norm as this can disrupt your thinking and help you develop new and better ideas. As you’re reflecting on your observations, invite curiosity and ask yourself questions about what you see. What environments inspired you to connect the puzzle pieces of new learning to visualize and apply new and beautiful understandings to the real world?
When you feel like your learning is in overdrive and you are looking for ways to bypass the traffic, make an effort to move from focus to diffuse mode by pausing and reaching out to a thinking partner, turning on your music, and appreciating the details in the world around you. Eventually, signposts in the roads will appear, offering a new direction to creation, development, and growth.
From the moment you enter school, you are faced with experiences that will impact the trajectory of your life. These memories shape your identity and help you reflect on decisions you choose to make. When those doors open, every interaction big and small has the potential to become a story. These are the stories that live in your heart and mind and will ultimately be passed down from one generation to the next. These stories are the legacies educators leave behind as they have the greatest gift, the gift of creating meaningful moments that set their students on a path to self-discovery. These moments can unlock your potential and leave footprints in the hearts of those you serve. Can you visualize and feel the moments I am talking about? Can you remember a special educator who influenced your world and altered the course of your journey? Do you have a compelling urge to pass down that goodness by recreating those pivotal experiences that live and thrive within?
Because of a Teacher
Because of a teacher, I live my life by leading with empathy and kindness.
Because of a teacher, I understand the value of connection and cultivating strong relationships with the people who cross my path.
Because of a teacher, I can be vulnerable. I can name and feel my emotions and navigate them with intention and purpose.
Because of a teacher, I am not afraid to capitalize on my curiosity, pursue my passions, and embrace the learning process.
Because of a teacher, I know that I will meet more teachers over the course of my life that will recognize and help me share my gifts, so I can bring out the best gifts in others.
The Universe Speaks
Two years ago, the universe connected me withGeorge Couros, learner, speaker, author, and innovative leader in the education field. He encouraged me to write. He encouraged me to share my learning through blogging. He has always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. As a result, he has become a great mentor, friend, and teacher.
When George asked me to contribute to his new book #BecauseOfATeacher among other leaders in education, educators whom I respect, admire, and adore, I was deeply grateful for the opportunity. As I had gotten to know many of the authors who contributed to this book, I knew that the stories were going to be unique and special. These are the kinds of stories that tug on your heart strings and evoke layers of emotion. This is the kind of book that will remain a constant on nightstands, coffee tables and bookshelves and will truly stand the test of time. And now that the book has come to fruition, it is evident that this compilation of stories will surely make you laugh, cry, and feel ALL of the feels. They will remind EVERY educator, new, veteran, and everyone in between why they got into this beautiful profession!
My Greatest Hope
My greatest hope is that this cherished book will be the epicenter of book studies around the world, reflecting on your personal stories, educational journeys, and the impact and influence you can have on learners. My greatest hope is that it will make it’s way into your hands, the hands of every educator as well as educators you’d like to thank. Maybe it’s because that educator was a constant source of happiness and inspiration in your life. Maybe it’s because that educator gave you a smile when you needed it the most. Maybe it’s because that educator unleashed the greatness they saw inside of you. Maybe it’s because that educator believed in you when you felt like no one else did. Let this book be a reminder that #BecauseOfATeacher, you are better.
We can’t wait to hear what you think! After reading each story, post a quote, a thought, and/or idea. Tag the authors and use the hashtag #BecauseOfATeacher! We can’t wait to read what you share!
Professional learning is in a constant state of transformation due to an ever-changing educational landscape. Great educators are finding innovative ways to learn and connect with others in order to expand a repertoire of their possible selves. They are bridging the distance and shattering the walls of isolation by way of various technological platforms; no matter what time zone or part of the world they live in, they can instantly be in the same virtual learning space; all they have to do is have the desire and intrinsic motivation to want to learn from others, be open to new and better ideas, be interested in finding out what they don’t know, and seek out the perspectives and voices of others.
A Global Learning Experience
Recently, global educator Naomi Toland, founder of #Empathetic_Educators seamlessly brought great educators together from around the world by creating 12 hours of LIVE professional learning during the 1st #EEConQuest event. Sessions were facilitated by educators who shared their expertise about a wide range of topics and engaged in meaningful dialogue. The trend in all of the conversations over the course of the day was clear: Educators are looking to expand their impact and influence over the most precious stakeholders in education – their learners.
I had the privilege and opportunity to co-host a Q & A with Naomi, featuring special guest John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The magic of technology brought educators from 4 parts of the world including New York, Japan, Thailand, and Australia together in one space. As a result, this event stretched my thinking and invited new understandings into my approaches to teaching and learning.
Quotes that Ignite Discussion
I am grateful to be able to share a short clip and a collection of John Hattie quotes that emerged from our global conversation. Consider using them to pique curiosity, ignite discussion within your professional learning communities and beyond, and reflect on what it means to be a teacher AND learner:
Video quote to think about: “How do we stop looking for failure and trying to fix it and how do we instead look for success?”
#EEConQuest John Hattie Quotes to Ignite Discussion – CLICK HERE to print discussion card
Some Questions I’m Thinking About as a Result of this Conversation
How can we create learning spaces that encourage productive struggle and empower learners to be their own teachers? What resources can we continue to utilize to meet learners where they are, accurately assess their progress, make them aware of the standards, learning targets, and their personal learning goals? When can we create time and space to give learners ongoing, cyclical, relevant feedback to move their learning forward? How can we ensure that learners are processing the feedback educators provide, understand it thoroughly, and implement it in their everyday learning? How can school leaders create protected time for educators to come together to regularly reflect on the innovative practices they have learned over the past year and discuss how they plan on utilizing those practices in their physical spaces? What effects do poor grades on transcripts have on learners? How can we focus more on what learners can do and not what they can’t do? Are we making sure that there is active learning transpiring in our classrooms that leads to deeper learning and transfer? Are we utilizing the gradual release of responsibility at the right times?
Unlocking the Joy of Discovery
We cannot overlook the opportunities that have been afforded to us through technological advances. As we navigate a global society that is saturated with people who bring their personal experiences, knowledge, and curiosity to learning spaces, we recognize the value of powerful conversations. These are the conversations that unlock the joy of discovery and create learning zones that continually shape our identities, belief systems, and reveal new possibilities.
Over the last year, every educator on the planet has learned a great deal about themselves, their students, and new ways to teach and implement instructional practices. During a global pandemic, they have graciously rolled up their sleeves, taken risks, and have connected with learners in innovative and meaningful ways. They have mined a variety of digital learning management systems, discovered new technological tools to elevate instruction, and have truly “showed up” for their students, colleagues, families, and communities! As the world shifts back to some sense of normalcy, educators across the country and beyond are beginning to reconnect with learners as they acclimate to the physical spaces they have always called home.
Challenges are Opportunities
During the most challenging times, educators have also found creative ways to rally learners, structure meaningful conversations, leverage intentional dialogue, and create a sense of psychological safety in their virtual and physical learning spaces. As educators and learners transition back to traditional learning environments, more than ever, it is recognized how the impact of human interaction can influence connection and elevate the social, emotional, and academic growth of students. Educators will continuously look for ways to create purposeful learning opportunities that strengthen relationships, cultivate connection, and manifest greatness within every learner they encounter. Life’s unexpected challenges are windows of opportunities waiting to be explored. That being said, “How can educators foster meaningful communication, reconnect with learners and create spaces where students experience deep, meaningful learning?” For me, dialogue journals have been a powerful way to tap into my students’ hearts, learn more about their passions and interests and monitor their learning in purposeful, intentional ways.
What Are Dialogue Journals?
Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! This is when you write for a long period of time without stopping! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely.
Benefits of Dialogue Journals
Builds connection and relationships between teacher to students and student to student.
Levels the playing field because all writers (teachers and students) are viewed as learners.
Fosters circles of psychological safety and trust within the classroom community.
Creates inclusive spaces where all learners voices and perspectives are heard in a written format.
Develops writing fluency and stamina since students are writing for a longer period of time during the back and forth conversation style writing.
Writers can respond to various print and digital content while they explore and show their knowledge about various content areas.
Formative Assessment: Although it’s not suggested that teachers grade dialogue journal writing as this can prevent writers from writing fast and furiously and develop the confidence to get their ideas out, teachers can notice trends in writing and plan instructional moves to use at another time (whole class, small group, one-to-one).
Teachers’ and other students’ writing becomes a mentor text for the students.
Teachers use this opportunity to provide on demand feedback and personalized instruction (i.e. a student is capitalizing proper nouns, using punctuation at the end of a sentence, adding details).
4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals
Literature and Informational Text
Students can actively engage in reading, listening, and responding by utilizing a variety of diverse texts. Educators can use dialogue journals as an opportunity to read aloud or have the students independently read a plethora of novels, short stories, picture books, and articles that serve as launchpads for meaningful discussion. These written conversations about literature can evolve into talking more deeply about story elements such as character development, theme, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution. When writing about informational text, the conversations can develop around different topics in history or current events. Students may notice various text features and structures that help them make meaning of the text.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a common expression many of us are familiar with. Visual media allows learners to analyze the details in images, talk about them, make observations, inferences, and generate questions. These images tap into a range of historical information and allow learners to make comparisons with the present and describe historical changes. They can also take on the perspectives of people in the past and develop their own wonderings. This can lead to inquiry and researching various topics in history in groups or independently.
Short Video Clips
Video clips can be an engaging way to introduce new information, concepts, and often frame learning for students in a multi-model visual way. Videos are a great way to amplify and support understanding for all learners. Teachers will have to search video clips that are connected to students’ interests, pertinent themes, and topics that are relevant to the class. Video clips can be up to 7-10 minutes in length, but should not take too much time since the purpose of the clip is to inspire written conversation. Teachers can be selective as they want the video to make an impact and set the purpose for watching the video. Turn on closed captioning for learners too! This helps them access the digital content in a different way and invites them to read as they watch!
When embarking on this experience, it is important to ground choices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.
For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, learners are motivated to use written conversation to explain a topic. The focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the written conversation.
Dialogue journals give every student an opportunity to make meaningful contributions in safe spaces, share their voice, and develop an empathetic lens when learning about different perspectives within their classroom and school communities. One-to-one written conversations are invitations to peel back layers of the heart and mind; they uncover beautiful personal stories learners are awaiting to be acknowledged and shared.
When you think back to your fondest memories of school, what experiences do you remember most? I am talking about memorable moments that have wrapped around your heart and hugged your soul. These memories are so vivid that when your thoughts wander back in time, you are the starring role in vibrant mind movies that leave you feeling incredible pride, joy, and gratitude for those opportunities. These memory moments have become part of the fabric of the person you’ve become and will continue to be on your course of life.
Snapshots in Time
For me, these snapshots in time are what made learning fun, creative, and applicable to real world interactions and experiences I’ve encountered. I can assure you that when my own children, students, and colleagues ask me about my favorite parts of my schooling timeline, it is not about the standards, assessments, skills, strategies, and/or particular lessons that were taught. It was the times I performed in the school musicals and dramas, participated in Battle of the Classes, and worked on passion projects I actually cared about. It was the educators who unlocked those moments that sparked my interests and ignited my passions. Those educators created personalized experiences that kept learners at the core of the work and viewed them as human beings first. The social interactions I had with peers illuminated the most relevant parts of learning. Together we laughed and navigated our way through successes and failures, sought solutions to conflicts, explored new ideas, and pushed our limits of learning, discovery, and growth.
Great Educators CAN Make a Difference
In order to make a difference in the lives of our learners, great educators must create experiences that tap into learners’ hearts so their minds are open to critically consuming information to create new and better things that are relevant to them and the real world. Meaningful learning sticks when great educators focus on the right things first! In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros says, “We have to acknowledge that our students come to us with a unique mix of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and passions…Our calling or task is to expose students to numerous pathways and provide them with the skills to be self-directed and goal-oriented so they can choose or create a path that allows their brilliance to shine” (p.32). I’ll admit, at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on delivering the curriculum that I rarely leveraged the moments where I could have listened more and developed deeper connections with my students to make learning matter. I always cared about them, but I thought that the primary way of showing it was by “covering the content” instead of making investments in their emotional deposit boxes and continuously giving them the choice and voice they deserved. In the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas Murray says, “Expecting children to walk through our doors and desire a “standard” model of education completely ignores the vast differences in interests, passions, and strengths of our learners. Providing opportunities, both small and large for these learners to explore areas that are meaningful to them recognizes who they are and reaffirms to them that they matter” (p. 107).
4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners
How can great educators create conditions that bring out the best attributes of every learner who enters the school buildings and classrooms they live in? I’ll tell you what has worked for me… fire them up and make them a part of the learning process! Empower them to listen, think, discuss, and choose the way they want to learn. Create opportunities where learners freely share their ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and talk about what’s on their hearts and minds. Use those moments to influence their learning and plan instruction that’s tailored to their needs; give them the starring role in vibrant future mind movies that they can recall and later share with pride, joy, and gratitude! With that being said, I want to share what my students think are 4 fun ways to empower them and fire up the learning that transpires in classrooms! These are learning experiences that they request we revisit regularly:
Picture of the Day
I discovered Picture of the Day from Hello Literacy consultant Jen Jones many years ago. I have found that using pictures is a low stakes, meaningful, purposeful way to observe, think, promote critical discussion, and honor other perspectives about anything you choose! In author Ralph Fletcher’s recent keynote at the Spring Virtual Long Island Language Arts Council Conference on March 25, 2020, he discusses how the world of our learners is increasingly visual. Photos are a universal language that reveal emotions and tell stories about people’s lives. Photos can magically stop time and become a tool for inquiry. They also serve as mentor texts that can inspire learners to take their own photographs and document their own journey. When I introduce the picture of the day, I begin by selecting pictures that are of high interest, relevant to the unit of study I am teaching, and/or mirror the interests of the learners in my class. For example, if I am teaching story elements, I may showcase pictures with a variety of settings, people, conflicts, and resolutions; if I have learners who have a passion for sports, traveling, cooking, etc… I will share those photographs. The students are invited to make observations (list things that can see in the picture) and then make reasonable inferences (using the details from the picture and what they already know) to develop ideas and perspectives about the photo. My students are also encouraged to select their own photographs in the choice boards I will discuss below! Learners can think and respond about photographs in a multitude of ways (i.e. in a writer’s notebook, Google Doc/Slides, Jamboard). I have found that Picture of the Day has supported my learners in previewing and comprehending more complex informational text.
Choice boards are not only a great way to empower learners by giving them choice and voice in what and how they are going to learn, but it also provides meaningful balance between online and offline learning. I have found that providing learners with choice boards encourages intrinsic motivation and a more meaningful desire to learn, personalized instruction, and allows students to respond by using various print and digital competencies. This type of freedom guides learners towards independence. The choice boards I designed below were inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog and self-paced course on blended learning. Each choice board includes skills/strategies that I have introduced in my own classroom. I revise the learning activities as I introduce new skills/strategies. Revising the options keeps learning fun and engaging! In the book Innovate Inside the Box, Couros states, “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics and how reading, writing, and math apply to their lives and are less likely to check out mentally” (pp. 62-63).
This is an authentic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while supporting the development of relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, and/or free writing prompts to get learners to participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely. Dialogue journals are a low pressure way to tap into students’ interests and passions, to learn more about each other, develop writing fluency, stamina, and build confidence. Teachers can participate by sharing their own experiences through writing, by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.
There have been several opportunities for my learners to create inspiration boards that exemplify and illustrate who they are as people. Allowing them to utilize a digital space such as Google Slides, enabled them to express their creativity and illuminate their passions and interests by using quotes, words, phrases, colors, and images. These activities have helped me to initiate meaningful conversations with my students and have supported the development of future lessons that are relevant to their lives and the world. In Innovate Inside the Box, Couros says, “If we don’t understand the learners we serve, even the best ideas for teaching and learning will not be as effective if we don’t learn about our students and connect with them first” (pp.77-78). In the example below, shows how learners responded to the book Love by Matt De La Pena by creating a board about what Love means to them! See the slides for more information about P.S. I Love You Day (the impetus for this learning experience).
Educators have been afforded a magical opportunity to impact and influence the lives of every learner they encounter throughout their careers. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a tremendous responsibility that rests on the shoulders of every interaction and experience we shape on the journey. You see, education is not just a career, it’s a calling; it’s a chance to create memorable moments that touch hearts, inspire learners to dream, and provide them with purposeful supports as they manifest their hopes for the future. Educators have the power to create spaces of psychological safety and tap into the emotional drive that will propel learners towards success. They have the ability to leverage intentional dialogue in their environments, provide learners with equitable access to their education in meaningful ways, and establish a sincere set of values and beliefs they can continuously put into action. This is a belief system that will model high levels of integrity and commitment to those they serve. In the book Unlocking Unlimited Potential by Dr. Brandon Beck, he beautifully states, “It’s the ultimate goal of all educators to unlock the unlimited potential in all whom you serve… your purpose as an educator has to involve your belief that you can guide all students to understand their potential is unlimited” (pp. 6-7).
Moving Beyond Our Locus of Control
Amidst a global pandemic, educators have been faced with challenges that are beyond their locus of control. According to the article, Locus of Control and Your Life by Kendra Cherry, “Locus of control refers to the extent to which people feel that they have control over the events that influence their lives.” People who have an external locus of control don’t believe they can change despite their efforts. This has placed unsurmountable pressure on educators who prefer to be in control of all of their professional outcomes and may believe that they must cover all of the standards and content in order for learners to be successful. However, the article continues to say that people who have a strong internal locus of control have more confidence when they are faced with challenges and have a strong sense of self-efficacy to be flexible and embrace change while reimagining learning in the new educational landscape we are living in. This has made educators question how they are going to unleash the talents in every learner that enters their learning spaces. If we are asking learners to engage in various learning activities in physical and virtual spaces, take risks, and put forth effort while embracing the infinite mindset, shouldn’t educators be modeling the same actions?
Where Do We Invest Our Time?
That being said, there have been various barriers including a lack of continuity of instruction that have gotten in the way of the engagement and empowerment learners need to thrive. In the book Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius by Katie Martin, she asks the following questions: “Why do some students willingly engage in academic tasks? What makes learners persist in challenging tasks? What compels learners to want to learn more and improve?” (p. 76). Martin goes on to talk about Camille Fallington’s deep research about creating cultures that develop mindsets for deeper learning to occur. “The following mindsets have been identified as critical to student motivation and willingness to persist in academically challenging work.
I belong in this community
I can succeed at this
My ability and competence grow with effort
My work has value to me
…As learners, teachers, and leaders, we must cultivate and model these mindsets too” (pp. 76-77). Throughout my teaching experiences, I have come to realize that before learners are able to feel empowered to engage in deep learning, educators must make an investment in the emotional deposit box by developing strong connections. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck brilliantly states, “It starts with educating students from the inside out in order to find the Sweet Spot” (p.48). So I ask, how can educators level up learning to create relevant, meaningful learning experiences that will leave an everlasting impact on the hearts and minds of the students they serve?
Here are 3 Ideas to Level Up Learning:
Stories are windows into our experiences. They are small moments etched into our memories. They are the ammunition that pushes us down the path of discovery. In an #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the façade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. How can we intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?
WHO YOU ARE: Tell YOUR story and share the reason your journey led you to where you are in right now! We all come from various experiences that shape who we are. By sharing those experiences, you are showing learners that they have the power to write their own narratives and change their course as they evolve as human beings!
YOUR WHY/PURPOSE: There is nothing more powerful than telling your learners why you were placed in a position to teach them how to maximize their social, emotional and academic potential. Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it…there are leaders and those that lead. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. Those who start with their ‘Why’ have the ability to inspire those around them.” What we value and how we share “why” we value those things, changes the culture of the classroom/building.
PERSONAL AND STUDENT STORIES THAT CONNECT LEARNING: In Richard Gerver’s book Change, he notes that people can, “Use stories as tools to build momentum in others.” Sharing educator and student stories will inspire the learning community to have empathy and understanding for one another. Stories are real world examples that can breath meaning and life into learning. That authentic connection can give the content more meaning and motivate learners to see it’s value and build deeper understanding of the classroom community and curriculum.
According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, one of the definitions of a bridge is, “a time, place, or means of connection or transition.” One of our critical roles as educators is to help learners build bridges that connect the heart to the mind. Throughout this journey, we are learning and thinking partners who provide the right scaffolds that help learners walk across the bridge with intention and purpose and grasp the new learning that exists on the other side. However, it’s the actual process of walking on the bridge, the productive struggle; those moments where as educators, we get to say, “I’m here for you, I care about you, and let’s have fun while doing it!” that will nurture the heart and make it easier for learners to open their minds.
ASKING QUESTIONS: When beginning a class in virtual and/or physical spaces, I have found that asking questions to launch a lesson and/or embedding them over the course of the day will set a positive tone for learning. I have asked questions as simple as “If you can eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? Who is someone that has been an inspiration to you and why? What are the 3 most important things in your life, why?” I also love “Would You Rather” questions such as “Would you rather be invisible or fly, why? Would you rather be Batman or Spider-Man, why? Would you rather fly around the world for free for the rest of your life or eat at any restaurant you want for free?” Learners can respond orally, in the live chat, or in a digital tool such as Google Jamboard or Mentimeter. These questions are fun way to connect and the classroom community gets to learn more about one another.
SHARING FEELINGS: A critcal part of being an educator is checking in on your learners emotional state. It is an opportunity to “read the room” and see where learners hearts and minds are during their time with you. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck states, “,,,it should be the unspoken truth in all schools that understanding your students’ emotions first and foremost is at the forefront of everything you do” (p. 49). He goes on to say, “Students are not robots programmed with all of the same software, they have many different dimensions and unique identities. Not providing SEL opportunities consistently is equivalent to trying to fly a plane without an engine. You aren’t going anywhere fast” (p. 51). It is a good idea to provide learners with emotional language to support them in expressing their feelings.
MUSIC/DANCING: One of the best parts of the day is when I incorporate music and dancing into learning. Sometimes it is music that I choose and other times I let my learners be the DJ. Moving and listening to music creates a fun, light-hearted space. This opens learners up to tackling the skills and strategies that will be taught that day. In a CNN article by Kelly Wallace, titled Move over, ‘sit still’! Why kids need to move in school, Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “When you move, you stimulate all the nerve cells that we use to think with, and when you stimulate those nerve cells, it gets them ready to do stuff.”
CULTIVATE CONNECTIONS: The heart of teaching and learning is rooted in the connections and relationships we develop with the learners we are lucky enough to serve. Cultivating strong relationships, understanding the learners’ strengths and areas for growth, tapping into their passions and interests, and providing equitable access to the curriculum for ALL learners are cornerstones to any worthwhile educational journey. In a recent Equity in Education Panel at #NCTIES2021, Sean Gaillard shared his working definition of equity, “Limitless opportunities for all-ALL the time…it’s relentless, it’s sustainable.” Without truly caring about the social-emotional well-being of every student, learning will not be as productive or meaningful. If we want to see the positive, lasting impact we are hoping for, we have to make it our obligation to get to know all learners as human beings first and give them what they need to thrive.
LEARNING SURVEYS: I created a Google Form Learning Survey for both learners and their families inspired by Catlin Tucker. I used similar questions for both because it was important for me to get to know the learners in my classes from both perspectives. This was also a way for me to introduce Google Forms as I have used this digital tool in a multitude of ways. I embedded a welcome video for the families right into the form so they can learn why filling out this form was important to me. This was also a way for me to connect with them, show who I am and what I value as an educator. My learners complete this survey 3x a year so that I can see how their thinking has evolved.
5-MINUTE MEETINGS: I schedule five-minute meetings with all of my learners. This idea was inspired by Dr. Mary Hemphill’s book The One Minute Meeting: Creating Student Stakeholders in Schools. The idea of these meetings is to check-in with my students, learn more about them as human beings, and then utilize the information to elevate their emotional literacy. There are three simple questions to ask:How are you today? What is your greatest celebration? What challenges have you had recently? After asking those simple, open-ended questions and having those personal conversations with each learner, I feel even more connected to each one of them. I now have a deeper understanding of what is happening in their world. Some had really cheerful, positive stories to share, while others were expressing that they are going through challenging times. The responses were collected in Google Forms. This qualitative data is used to drive planning and instruction.
1:1 CONFERENCES: 1:1 conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate learning. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.
Think back to your first years of teaching. Were you ever handed a roadmap to success? I remember thinking that I’d enter the school building on my very first day and be given a handbook that would include secret magical ingredients to the perfect recipe for becoming a successful educator. Well, that never happened because it just doesn’t exist! Even after experiencing years of schooling, internships, student teaching adventures, and a lot of reading, I know now that nothing really prepares a new educator more than being thrown right into the trenches. I am pretty sure that every educator who has ever had their own classroom of learners understands that it’s a tremendous responsibility that is both gratifying and overwhelming at the same time. Also, anyone who gets placed in a position to influence the lives of children must recognize that they have been given the unique opportunity to make an everlasting impact. Moments of influence and impact have the potential to live within learners for the rest of their lives. Those gifts live within great educators and are waiting to be unwrapped at the right place, at the right time, with the right people! Those moments cannot be prescribed in any handbook or roadmap to success because there is no winning in education and learning. According to Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game, education is not finite. There is no beginning, middle, and end because the players, curricula, policies and procedures, are continuously changing. Rather, education is an infinite game because there is no finish line or end. “Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as “winning” an infinite game. In an infinite game, the primary objective is to keep playing to perpetuate the game” (p.4). So who is responsible for creating the invisible roadmap to success?
Mentors Are Everywhere
Although New York State provided me with a formal mentor when I was a new teacher, I was fortunate to have many educators around me who I viewed as mentors. They too shared words of wisdom, resources, and new ideas that would impact the way I chose to approach teaching and learning for the rest of my career. As a matter of fact, I perceive every single educator I have ever come into contact with since the beginning of my career as a mentor. Why is that? Some have gifted me with pieces of advice that I will indefinitely hold close, while others have modeled practices that I would never even consider employing. That being said, I have taken all of the wisdom that’s been shared with me over the years and created an open roadmap that includes 8 pieces of advice for new teachers!
Discover the How
I call this an “open road map” of advice because these are only suggestions, a framework, a guide. These are signposts that will point any new educator toward the right direction, but it will be ultimately up to them to choose their path and decide what kind of educator they want to be. That’s the beautiful part about being an educator. Educators come with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Educators see the world from a unique lens and approach their practice with stories that push on their hearts. The open roadmap will provide the “what” and the “why” for those who plan to approach education with an infinite mindset. It is up to the educator and the mentors who are placed in their paths along the way to discover the “how”. My hope is that this open roadmap of advice can be placed into the hands of the mentors who are helping build strong foundations for educators and any new teachers who are committed to lifelong learning and view the process as a journey. Let this be advice to inspire you to imagine what the future could hold for yourself and the people you will continue to influence throughout your career.
1. Keep Connections at the Core: Getting to know your learners, their families, stories, passions, and interests will show them that you are human first and that you care. Be that person who wears an empathy lens. Be that person who will take the time to walk in the shoes of every student and colleague who crosses your path. By creating those connections and cultivating meaningful relationships, you are opening the pathways to deeper learning and exponential growth!
2. Embrace the Community: Make an effort to get to know the vision and mission at the community, district, and building levels. The people who make up the culture and climate of your organization are trying to row in the same direction to best serve the students! Every role in an organization is important and should be valued. You are now part of a team and it certainly takes a village to provide students with the right opportunities to thrive. You do not have to work in isolation. Observe and talk with the people around you; you will be surprised about how much you will learn from them. Those conversations will stretch your thinking and have an immediate impact on your role. You will also have a better understanding about who you can turn to for direction and advice when you need it! Also, for additional support, consider joining an online community like Chuck Poole’s Facebook Group Teacher’s Success Lounge or Rachelle Dene Poth’s Thrive in EDU Facebook Group. There may be people in those spaces that embrace and invite other thinking partners.
3. Build a Network: Although having an outstanding formal mentor is crucial to the growth process, it is vital to connect and collaborate with other educators and staff members in your educational communities. Everyone has knowledge and gifts to share. We are truly better together. Try not to compare yourself to others. According to Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We are not here to compete! We are here for kids! Just like we have different friends for various reasons (those who make us laugh, seek advice from, listen to understand, talk so we don’t have to), the same holds true for the educators we meet. Find those people in your organization who can make you better and help you see and learn other practices and perspectives. Also, consider expanding your network by using one or more social media platforms. Twitter has been a gamechanger for me. I have met some of the most impactful people to push my thinking in ways I never knew they could. Some have also become great friends! The #EduTwitter space can be overwhelming, but when you find the right network, it can be magical! Just remember, great minds don’t always think alike, they think differently too!
4. Discover and Document: One of the best things I was afforded the opportunity of doing was watching other great educators teach! Inter-visitations, lab sites, and debriefing time will allow you to discover and embed new practices into your repertoire of teaching and learning tools! If this doesn’t happen in your school district, ask! Perhaps your administrators can arrange for it (even virtually). If you are lucky enough to have Instructional Coaches, ask them if they could organize this authentic learning experience, but also invite them to come in and offer you constructive feedback. I always loved when my coaches and peers gave me new ideas. They encouraged me to try new approaches and made me better! Also, you may want to consider creating a digital portfolio. A digital portfolio will allow you to document and think about your learning in the most intentional and meaningful ways. I am grateful to George Couros for encouraging me to recently start mine after 14 years in education! Luckily I took his incredible Digital Portfolio Master Course where he walked me through the process of why I should create one and how I can use it! The experience has been reflective and allows me to create a digital footprint of my students’ and my own learning. It’s never too late to start! Don’t think too hard about it. Just jump right in and make it happen… you won’t be sorry!
5. Pursue Professional Development: I am fortunate to work in a school district that provides a tremendous amount of professional development for all teachers. My Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Paul Romanelli sees the value in offering a wide range of courses that fit with the district vision and meet the needs of the staff and student population. He believes in empowering and elevating the teachers within the district coupled with bringing in great educators and thought leaders from outside of the organization to facilitate targeted professional learning experiences. Together, we also make sure that the Mentor Program provides appropriate, relevant, and innovative PD for our new teachers. I am also a big believer in not waiting for your school district to provide professional development for you. I REPEAT. Do not wait! If there is something out there that will help meet the needs of your learners and you, then pursue it and find it! Then, ask if you can attend it! Twitter has been a space to professionally grow and it’s FREE! Consider joining a Twitter chat that is rooted in a topic you are interested in! I personally enjoy #CultureEd, #FutureReady, #G2Great, #Empathetic_Educators, and #Read2Lead (just to name a few). Read professional books, articles, blog posts, and listen to podcasts. In my previous blog post, What Are Educators Doing? I mention some of my favorite professional learning resources! If you are having difficulty finding a professional learning opportunity that meets your needs, then consider CREATING IT!! You should always be in the driver’s seat of your learning!
6. Be a Mirror: Think about all of the educators who have influenced your practice. You may have not even met some of them yet! I know that some of the great educators who have made the most impact on me have only come into my life recently. The thought of meeting more people I don’t know yet is exciting! Think about why those people have been an important part of your journey. What did they say or do to influence the choices you make on a daily basis? Take the best qualities of all of those educators, mirror those attributes, and make them your own! If possible, reach out to those people and tell them exactly why and how they have inspired you. They will be happy to hear it! Sometimes, we don’t recognize the impact we are having when we are in the moment. Be the mirror and best versions of all of those people!
7. Celebrate Successes and Failures: It is crucial to give yourself recognition for all successes big and small! This is hard work and you should be able to share those amazing moments of growth and awe with those who support and cheer you on! There is nothing more gratifying than knowing you have made a difference in the lives of your students and colleagues alike. At the same time, you must consider that when you enter the field of education, be prepared to fail at things many times throughout your career. THIS IS A GOOD THING. I repeat. THIS IS A GOOD THING. When you aren’t failing, it means that you are not trying new things. It means that you are comfortable with the status quo. It means that you are not pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. So celebrate success AND failure. You earned it!
8. Pause and Reflect: Educators are working hard and exhausting all of the minutes in their precious days. Great educators also have servant hearts and are usually thinking about everyone else’s needs but their own. Take the time to pause and reflect. That means, take a break! Pursue your personal passions and interests, practice self-care in the best way it suits you. This will look different for everyone. Some will indulge in their favorite exercise routines or go on a shopping spree. Others will take a painting class, read for pleasure, and/or write a blog like I am right now! The point is, whatever makes you happy on the inside, whatever pleasures your heart, do it! Taking that break to focus on YOU will actually make you a better educator than you were before!
My #OneWord2020 was EMPOWER. Last year it came to me pretty easily. My “why” behind selecting this word was that I wanted to continue to create spaces and opportunities to empower others to share their passions, gifts, and voices with the world. The beautiful part about life is that everyone you will ever meet will share something that you didn’t know previously. If we open our minds to different perspectives and ideas, elevate others, and give recognition in the process, doors will open to paths of empowerment, innovation, creation, and exponential growth beyond our imaginations.
The year 2020 invited a range of emotions into the hearts and headspaces of every human being I know. I’ll admit, every day felt like diving into the deep end of hope, faith, uncertainty, and fear. Every day I found myself submerged at the deep end; when I pushed off at the very bottom and propelled my way to the surface, I contemplated my next moves with as much conviction, persistence, and fortitude my whole being had to expend. When I finally arrived at the surface, I began treading water and tried to find ways to keep afloat. Can you relate to this experience? During this time, I revisited my #OneWord2020. My internal thinking was running wild and at times, I was struggling to live the word EMPOWER. How could I continue to elevate others and help people see their gifts if there were moments I was struggling to see my own?
Not One Day is the Same
One of the many reasons I love being in the field of education is that not one day will ever be the same. NOT. ONE. DAY. Why? It is because we are putting the needs of our learners front and center. We are keeping them at the heart of decision making. We are committed and passionate about supporting and guiding them to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential. We know that their needs change day to day, minute to minute. As an educator, you can plan as much as you want, but most likely those plans can change in an instant. Great educators are not reactive, they are responsive. Great educators can dive into the deep end, come up for air, and be willing to dive in again knowing that they can empower themselves to rise above the challenge.
Diving into the Deep End
I was inspired by Beth Houf’s latest blog titled “All the Words.” Her beautifully authentic words resonated, “The new year that has been anticipated for the majority of the previous year. Shiny and new and full of hopes and dreams and new beginnings. I’m an optimist enough to believe in positive change. I’m a realist enough to know that the challenges of 2020 haven’t been left behind. Realistically speaking, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic.” With this in mind, I found myself diving into the deep end to search and connect with my #OneWord2021. I explored my options knowing we are embarking on an extension of the preceding unique year. I patiently waited for the word to jump off a page, latch onto my heart, and cling like a magnetic force because it us a word I will live by for another year. Over the course of my life, there have been moments of impulse where I have let my emotions make choices that have not always been reasonable. Now I know better. My life experiences have led me to commit to choices that are more balanced and purposeful. George Couros shared an idea about purpose in his latest Saturday email. He eloquently expressed, “One of the words that I have been REALLY thinking about as of late is “purpose.” There is so much in our world that we strive for (joy, happiness, success, etc.) that really could be connected to that single word. He continued to share this quote by Chadwick Boseman:
I try to live my life with purpose, self-efficacy, and true commitment to things I am passionate about. This rationale has inspired me to be more courageous in my convictions and make decisions that are more intentional. I have always found purpose in the words and values I choose to live by. I have always been reasonable with my choice so I can reconnect with my word when I am pushed to the deep end. It might have taken me a little while to push myself to the surface for air, but when I finally did, my #OneWord2021 was right there waiting for me.
My #oneword2021 is BELIEVE…
Merriam-Webster Definition of Believe: to consider to be true or honest; to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something
I chose the word BELIEVE as my theme this year because I want to have the belief in myself and others to overcome obstacles, accomplish anything we set our minds to, and take action on achieving hopes and dreams! I am going to live this word by believing in myself to accomplish new goals without overthinking and without having hesitation. I want to believe that I can jump right in and use moments of wonder to create, inspire, innovate, and thrive!
My educational journey has led me to teaching middle school learners in the midst of a global pandemic…I know I’m better for it; I’m better for it because my students, colleagues, and PLN have shown me the way. They have taught me to be more patient. They have taught me to be more flexible. They have taught me to embrace the failures and frustrations. Together, we have questioned the status quo and the implementation of instructional practices. Together we have learned new digital platforms and tools to support student learning. We have lifted each other up when we are feeling down or inadequate. We have celebrated successes big and small. We have shared our failures so we can learn from them. This time, last year we could never have imagined being in the position we are in now, but we are HERE. We are showing up and working together to love, support, and serve our learners in every way possible.
An Inspiring Message
A few weeks ago, speaker, educator, and author Thomas C. Murray posted a YouTube video with the caption, “To our first responders, health care workers, educators, and those that are helping by pouring their lives into others each day in the midst of this pandemic… THANK YOU. If you watch one thing today, make it this.”
If you haven’t seen this, watch it, please! I played this video multiple times and every single time I view it, I cry a little harder. Before the holiday break and I wanted to come up with a simple, meaningful activity to share with my learners that would inspire us to reflect on the year 2020.
After discussing sentiments, thoughts, and feelings about the video, I shared a letter I wrote to my students about 2020 and the challenging times we are facing. It came straight from my core. So much so that when I read the letter to each class, I shed many tears.
2020 has been one of the most challenging years in the history of education and the world! I know that virtual learning hasn’t always been easy. You do not get to socialize with your friends in the same ways. You do not get to interact with teachers in the same ways. You do not always get to learn in the most conducive ways. I see you. I hear you. I feel for you. I want to express my gratitude for showing up, trying your best, and being flexible during challenging times. I have been learning alongside you, and it hasn’t always been easy. One thing I do know is that we are resilient. We are grateful. We are strong. We are a team. Just know that YOU will have so much to share with the world because you are living the unimaginable! I can promise you this…we will get through this. Together.
With love and gratitude, Mrs. Kaufman
3. Have the students write a letter of gratitude and appreciation to an educator who has positively impacted their lives during the global pandemic.
Click HERE for the Google Slides template to the activity.
We’re Doing a Good Job
I believe that sharing my vulnerability first, opened the hearts of my students. I was incredibly touched by their meaningful sentiments. The tears kept coming as I read each one. I’ll admit…2020 has invited a range of emotions into my heart and headspace. It’s certainly been a wild ride.
There are times when the work gets hard.
There are times when the work gets stressful.
There are times when I question whether or not my instruction is adequate enough to meet all of the learners’ needs in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously.
But, we are HERE, we are showing up, we are rolling up our sleeves, and believing in ourselves, our colleagues, and students. … and after reading these letters, I feel better knowing that we’re doing a good job…
Stories are windows into the soul. They are hidden treasures that are buried beneath a sea of hopes, wishes, dreams. They are small moments of time that pass you by. They are memories that enrapture your heart and wrap around your spirit. They are the hidden paths to who we are and what we will become. Every piece of who we are, are invisible stories strung together and concealed by our external being. There are moments in time where our masked stories are unearthed amidst the creation of the new versions of ourselves. Stories bind us to people; they are entry points to connection, collaboration, conversation, and contact. Our stories are a learning journey, our core identity, they are a reflection of our values and what we stand for. What if we do not like the way a story is unfolding in our lives? Did you know that we have the divine power to choose our own? What can we intentionally do to shift the narratives we are creating and write the stories we want to be a part of?
Stories are windows into our experiences. They are small moments etched into our memories. They are the ammunition that pushes us down the path of discovery. They live in mind memory boxes waiting to be courageously unwrapped and gifted to people who use them to discover ideas and recognize their own passions. In a recent #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros brilliantly says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the facade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. How can we intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?
Layering Stories into Learning
Here is a simple and authentic formula to consider following when thinking about how a classroom community can intentionally embed stories into their learning lives:
Personalize – The teacher links a personal story to learning by saying.
I was thinking about…
I remember when…
Let me tell you a story…
Connect- Learners connect their own stories to a learning experience.
This is making me think…
I’m realizing that…
Share: Learners share connections with peers to form new ideas.
Your story is making me think…
Your story is making me wonder…
Stories are lenses that formulate perspectives and cultivate community. They are sound bites, and short episodes of our lives. They are opportunities to personalize classroom experiences, make connections to new learning, and a bridge that connects us with people to form new ideas. In chapter 3 of the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas C. Murray passionately wrote, “Weaving together our experiences creates our story, makes us who we are, and determines the context in which we each learn.” Understanding the stories within our school organizations forges deeper connections that lead to deeper learning. Understanding stories values the uniqueness of each individual and brings purpose to authentic work. Understanding stories helps us shift the narratives we want to create in our classrooms, honors people who live in our world, and nourishes the feeling of empathy in the spaces we choose to create.
Call me stubborn, but I refuse to quit! T.R.U.E. G.R.I.T. is the foundation to success in learning and life! Exploring the dynamics of a successful classroom and how grit is a vital characteristic for student achievement